The Man from the Picture
Sarada followed the dusty road through the forest cautiously. The potholes and patches of grass and weeds made it clear that it wasn't used much. When she didn't catch up to Kazuki, even at a slower pace she moved with, she grew uneasy. Something was missing.
She was no expert on tracking, but she knew enough theory from the Academy to look for footprints and other traces. It should've been easy to pick out Kazuki's tracks if the narrow path was so rarely frequented, however as she analyzed the ground, she didn't see any footprints in a child size. There weren't any coming from the shrine, too. How puzzling.
Sarada spun around, sweeping her gaze over the trees, mostly needle-leaved species like cedars and pines. They were nothing like the good old leafy oaks from Konoha. She took in the moist air which prickled her nose with the subtle smell of salt. It wasn't a bad scent, just something she wasn't used to.
The young Uchiha activated the Sharingan and scanned the trees again, but even with the sharper eyesight that allowed her to analyze the minute details in a blink, she didn't detect any traces of Kazuki. If he didn't use this road and didn't take to the trees, then either she went in the wrong direction, which was ridiculous, because there wasn't one, or she missed a second road from the shrine to the village.
Sarada turned back, when she more sensed than heard someone approaching. She only had a split second to move—she slipped behind a tree with her back to it and slowed down her breathing, pulling chakra into herself in a controlled manner. Recently she'd gotten a lot of practice in this trick.
The footfalls were very soft, almost inaudible under the daily sounds of the forest. When she was certain the person walked past her tree, Sarada very slowly and very cautiously peeked out.
It was Kazuki!
She didn't understand how he could come from behind her when he was the one who set out first. Before she became too hung up over this mystery, she reminded herself that it didn't really matter. He came close to catching her off guard, but it was a simple fluke. She crept soundlessly after him, utilizing her hard-learned ninja skills.
Unaware of his shadow, Kazuki continued towards the village. The road led downward and in a place where the trees parted, it revealed a breathtaking view of a blue, sparkling sea and a gentle cove with a sleepy village nestled next to it. Several fishing boats of various sizes were docked in the harbour and white points of seagulls flew around them in circles, some sitting down on masts, some diving towards the water to catch a small fish.
Kazuki didn't even glance at that picturesque scene, as it was his bread and butter, but Sarada stayed rooted to the spot, entranced by the beautiful sight. She could have seen something similar on TV or in photo albums, but in person this was a different experience. Leaving Konoha opened her eyes to a whole new world.
Sarada followed Kazuki into the village. She couldn't take cover behind trees or bushes anymore, but the increased traffic on the road allowed her to mingle with the crowd without drawing much attention to herself. No one paid attention to some teenage girl. Civilians had no reason to suspect she was a ninja and that suited her just fine.
An old woman was sitting before her house and repairing a fishing net as she kept an eye on the daily goings-on in the village. Her sharp eyes, hidden among the wrinkles, settled on Kazuki.
"You! Sakura's boy! Come here!" she called in a barking, scratchy elderly tone.
Something about her sharpness made Sarada wary. Instinct told her that she didn't want this little old lady noticing her. She slinked behind a corner to observe how the situation would play out.
Kazuki ambled closer to the old woman. "Hi, Grandma Hanae! How are you feeling today?" he asked in a chipper tone. The old woman gave him a thin smile.
"My joints ache, but that's normal in my age. But thank you for asking. Maruki, was it?"
"Ah, yes. Maruki was that trouble child of my brother's. He died on the sea, have I told you that?"
Kazuki shifted on his feet, giving away his impatience. "Yes, I heard the story. Is there something you needed?"
"When's your mother going down to the village from that mountain? I'm running out of my medicine and I'm too old to come up there myself. Honestly, that silly girl should know better. She's needed here, with the people, not living with ghosts in that haunted shrine," the old woman ranted.
Kazuki discreetly rolled his eyes. "We live in a house next to the shrine, grandma," he replied.
Hanae huffed. "Big difference! That ground is haunted since the priests were slaughtered. I was still a little girl then, but I will never forget the fires." She motioned for him to lean closer, so she could whisper something to him. Sarada curiously peeked out from behind the corner, worrying she wouldn't hear the secret. Fortunately the old woman must have been a bit deaf, because her whisper was still rather loud. "They were from that famous ninja clan, did you know that? They could do all sorts of unbelievable tricks, like spitting fire out of thin air. What they were called? Mo-Mochi..." Hanae frowned, trying to remember.
"The Uchiha clan," Kazuki helpfully provided.
"Ah, yes, Uchiha. Still no one knows who killed them. Well, that was long before that lad Itashi murdered the rest."
Sarada's breath caught. Did she mean Itachi? Like her dead uncle Itachi? But he was a war hero! Her father took her to visit his grave every year! Could this lady be talking about him? Or was there really someone named Itashi? This had to be some kind of a misunderstanding. Besides, it was common knowledge that the clan had been killed by the Akatsuki leader, with her father and uncle as the only survivors.
This civilian grandma had to be wrong, but somehow Sarada still had an urge to talk to her and find out what she knew about her uncle. Maybe later.
The old woman looked like she wanted to continue her long-winded talk, but Kazuki smoothly used the small break in her speech to cut in. "I don't know when Mom is coming down, but I'll tell her about your medicine when I get home."
"Very good!" The old woman pulled a wrapped candy out of her apron's pocket. "Would you like a candy?"
Kazuki shook his head.
"No, thanks. Mom says my teeth will rot if I eat too much sweets. But say, grandma... have you seen a new girl around here? Dark hair, this long," he showed on himself, "she wears glasses and a blue shirt."
"Glasses and a blue shirt, you say?" Hanae repeated and then her gaze fell right on Sarada.
The girl froze, staring at the crafty old woman like a deer in the headlights.
"Is that her?" Hanae raised her finger to point out Sarada's hiding place.
Kazuki whirled around and also spotted her.
His voice broke her out of the stupor and Sarada kicked off the ground, disappearing from his view behind the corner. She heard Kazuki throwing a quick thanks over his shoulder to the old woman as he gave chase.
"Anytime, Maruki! Anytime!" Hanae called after him, once again forgetting his name.
As a child raised in a bustling city of Konoha and being friends with a troublemaker like Boruto, Sarada was used to running in an urban terrain. She had played a lot of tag as a child. The problem was that Kazuki knew this village and she didn't. He was gaining on her fast.
Sarada swiftly entered a back alley and vaulted over some trashcans, all the while cursing her own carelessness. She was so confident that she could hide from Kazuki as long as she wanted, but a civilian octogenarian spotted her so easily! She should have used the transformation jutsu or something!
Sarada made a sharp turn into another alley, but it turned out to be a dead end. Kazuki would catch up in a matter of seconds. She quickly made the necessary hand seals and in a poof of smoke transformed into one person she knew well and that looked like the opposite of her—Boruto. Then she calmly went back into the alley, hands in pockets, adopting a loose posture of a person that had nothing to do with any chases.
Kazuki ran past her without sparing her a glance. When he was busy trying to figure out where she disappeared to, Sarada climbed on a wooden fence and jumped on the rooftop. She let go of the transformation and laid low on the brown, sun-heated tiles as she found herself a good vantage point for observation. It wasn't the most comfortable position for her neck, but as a ninja she had to endure the discomfort. The point was, people weren't used to looking up when they were searching for someone and she banked on that as she hid from Kazuki. Of course, she took into account the possibility that he'd look up there, which is why she made herself invisible from the street view.
The boy came out of the dead end with clenched fists which he shoved into his pockets. He kicked a rock. It bounced off the ground and struck the fence, then fell in a small bush, startling a white cat which darted out of its green hiding spot.
"Shiro?!" Kazuki exclaimed, recognizing the feline. The cat turned around and tilted its head at him, considering his intentions.
Kazuki crouched down and pulled a small plastic package out of his pocket. He opened it and shook out into his open palm something that looked like little biscuits. He held them out to the cat which took a few hesitant steps towards him before sitting on its hind legs. It was watching the offered food intently, the same way Sarada was watching the whole scene unfolding from the roof.
"Come on, don't you want something tasty? This is for you," Kazuki told him with a soft smile. "And to say sorry for scaring you."
After some more careful enticement, finally the cat came to him and ate the biscuits out of his hand. It licked around its mouth and looked for more. Kazuki grinned, but instead of the package, he took out a piece of white fabric. He gave it to the cat to sniff.
"If you want more food, you need to help me find a girl that smells like this. Okay?"
Sarada wanted to jump down and tell him that he got the wrong animal to track her. Dogs were a given and the best choice, but a cat?! Who uses a cat for tracking?
Apparently, Kazuki did.
She also wondered where he'd gotten the material with her scent from, before figuring out he'd probably cut out a piece from her bedsheet, which also solved the earlier mystery of him appearing behind her on the road. She admitted to herself it was a smart move on Kazuki's part, but to use a cat?! A normal street cat on top of that?
She just couldn't wrap her head around that. It just seemed so... so... illogical!
"Guys! Look who we've got here!"
The shout from the alley below brought her focus back into the moment. A group of six—four boys and two girls—stalked towards Kazuki, who quickly got up from the crouch. Sarada noticed his hands were empty and he appeared cool, but there was tension along the line of his shoulders. He was wary of these people.
"What do you want, Hiro?" he asked.
A boy in a green vest with cut off sleeves and wielding a long stick stepped forward confidently. He must have been the leader of the group.
"I didn't see you around for a while, Freak Eyes," he said.
Sarada stiffened, gripping the tiles harder.
"You saw me. You can go now," Kazuki replied unmoved by the insult.
"Not so fast. What are you doing in the village? Feeding your stupid cat?"
The cat, which was curled behind Kazuki's feet, hissed at the other boy threateningly.
"He's not stupid and what I'm doing here isn't you business."
"You should have stayed on that haunted mountain, instead of bringing bad luck to everyone here with your freaky eyes."
"I don't have freaky eyes!" Kazuki snapped. The repeated insult finally got under his skin.
"You stared at me like a creep and the next day I broke my leg!" a girl with a ponytail cried out accusingly.
"Yeah! My grandma said only witches have two different eyes!" some boy in a cap added. "And you have that white cat! Just like a witch!"
The children in the group nodded in agreement and started shouting out nasty things about Kazuki and his family, every next one getting more outrageous. They didn't care about truth, they just wanted to hurt him. Hiro was outright smirking at Kazuki who stood rooted in the spot with a shuttered expression. To Sarada, looking from above, he looked so small and so alone and for a moment she fought off the impulse telling her to just rush in there, her task be damned, and put the fear of God into these ignorant, horrible brats until they bawled their eyes out and apologized to Kazuki. She held back, barely.
This took her back to the past, to the times better forgotten...
Aunt Hinata took her to the playground with Boruto. He immediately ran off to play with Shikadai and other boys, leaving Sarada alone. She started walking around, looking around to find someone to play with.
She approached the girls playing on the seesaw. They were laughing together about something, but the moment she came closer, they went silent and stared at her strangely. Sarada clasped her hands in front of her to tame her nervousness.
"Hi," she said, but they didn't answer. She carried on. "This looks fun. Can I..." she swallowed, "... can I play with you?"
The girls looked at each other, then back at her.
"Sure," one of them said. Sarada was going to smile, but the expression froze when the girl added, "We were just going, you can play here." The girls jumped off the seesaw and turned to leave.
Sarada looked at them in shock. Why were they going? Why didn't they want to play with her?
"Wait!" She ran after them. "Don't leave me! I just want to play with you!"
"Go away! We don't want to play with you!" the same girl shouted at her and shoved her to the ground. Sarada looked at her in disbelief, tears gathering in her eyes from the pain of the fall. No one ever did something like this to her and she just didn't understand anything that was happening.
"But why?" she asked desperately.
"My parents said you're dangerous just like your dad," the girl responded. Her friend nodded.
"I'm not dangerous! And my dad is good!" Sarada cried out.
"My mom told me that all people with the fan symbol are bad. If she sees me with you, she won't give me my dessert today," the second girl told her seriously and both girls left.
Sarada didn't try to stop them again. She just sat on the ground, staring down at her hands numbly as tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped on her shirt. She finally stood up and dusted herself off. Then she found an empty corner and spent her time there until Aunt Hinata came to collect her and Boruto.
Next time Sarada brought a book to the playground. Most often she was left alone as she read, but sometimes other kids bothered her and called her names. She became distant and wary. The only kids she interacted with were Boruto and little Himawari when she went to their house. Even then, she and Boruto argued a lot about the stupidest things and often it ended in roughhousing until Aunt Hinata broke them apart.
Everything changed when Sarada met Chouchou.
But Kazuki didn't have anyone like Chouchou. It was only him and a cat against a bunch of angry punks. Sarada bit her lip, watching the situation anxiously.
"I don't have time for this," Kazuki suddenly said and turned his back to the group as he began walking.
"Hey! We're not finished with you!" Hiro shouted, but Kazuki ignored him. "Are you deaf?!"
When no response came, Hiro charged at his back, swinging down the stick, but before it hit Kazuki's skull, his hand caught it with a resounding clap. Then Kazuki grabbed the stick with the other hand and turned, wrenching it out of surprised Hiro's grasp and hitting him in the stomach. Hiro bent over from the force of the strike before he fell on his butt. The other children gasped.
"You... you..." Hiro spluttered, his face going red with embarrassment.
"You don't want to fight me," Kazuki warned. "I have something important to do, so you better don't get in my way," he said and flung the stick far away.
And for a moment it looked like it worked, that the cowed brats were going to listen to him.
Then a pebble hit him hard in the chest.
"That's for cheating off me on the test! It's your fault I got punished, Freaky Eyes!" a short, round-faced boy yelled and threw a bigger rock, which whizzed past Kazuki's head.
"Get more rocks!" Hiro commanded. The kids bent down to gather their ammunition but Kazuki used that moment to bolt.
"Coward! Let's get him!" Hiro changed his tactics, but he kept the rocks. They all ran after Kazuki, chucking the stones at him in effort to slow him down, though they soon ran out of ammo. Sarada followed the pursuit, jumping the rooftops.
Kazuki was hedging across the village towards the forest, but Hiro was close on his heels. It could take a long time for Kazuki to shake them off and Sarada realized that her hour was almost up.
She made the decision easily. With a few hand seals she transformed again.
When Kazuki turned a corner, his pursuers lost him from sight for a moment. That's when Sarada joined the fray. In her disguise, it wasn't hard to get their attention.
"There he is! Get him!" Hiro shouted when he caught a sight of her. She showed him her tongue and ran into an alley going opposite to the one Kazuki had taken. She let them chase her for a minute, then turned a corner and hopped on a rooftop, losing the tail. She cancelled the transformation.
With the kids taken care of, she returned to her task. She retraced her way back to where she last saw Kazuki, then went in a straight line for the woods.
Standing among the trees, Sarada breathed in the fresh air to center herself. She felt as if she made one big circle and found herself at the starting point. Kazuki was nowhere in sight and she wasn't a chakra sensor, so she had to rely on her sight and hearing to locate him.
A rustle from behind made her whirl around and hold a kunai in front of her defensively. A familiar white cat came out of the bushes and meowed at her. Sarada exhaled and let her kunai down. The cat meowed again, like it was asking her for something.
"I don't have any food for you, sorry," she said.
The cat looked at her with disappointment. Sarada startled at meeting its gaze. The animal's right eye was an electric blue, but the left was bright green.
Just like Kazuki's left eye...
She was so surprised at this that she completely let her guard down. And that's when someone jumped her from behind.
Sarada slammed on the ground with a grunt of pain. She attempted to crawl out from under the person she knew was Kazuki, but he grabbed her arm and pulled it back painfully while digging his knee into her back. Sarada groaned and got a mouthful of dirt. She turned her head to spit it out.
"I caught you," Kazuki said.
"Let. Go." Sarada tried to kick out, but all she got was a hard tug on her arm. Was he going to pull it out of the socket?
Kazuki tied her wrists together behind her back with only one hand, which took some skill. He also took away her weapons pouch and only then he stood up. He was holding the end of the rope.
Sarada rose to her feet slowly, thinking of ways to free herself. Without anything sharp on hand even the jutsu to get out of ropes would take too long.
Kazuki took out the cat food package and gave some biscuits to the cat.
"Thanks Shiro, you did great," he praised him and scratched the kitty behind the ear earning a pleased purr. Then he turned to Sarada. "Come on, we're going home."
She gave a weak glare, but she didn't have much choice. He made her go first, so he could keep an eye on her bound wrists. Her glasses were askew and barely hanging on her nose, but she had no way to slide them up and too much pride to ask for help.
Sarada fell into a brooding silence.
This was supposed to be an easy task, but she failed it. She didn't take it seriously enough. Now she lost her chance to get the truth about her mother from Madara and she had no one to blame.
AN: Thanks for reading! Please let me know what you thought about the chapter :)
Also, for those who'd like to read this story in Chinese, there is an on-going translation by wonderful Radita. Link in my profile.